Living to Die. Work, eat, sleep, repeat. My life was the complete opposite of the Die Living motto. Until recently, I thought life was simply, “One day I can do this” or “Sometime in the future I’ll have time for that,” with a little, “I wish I could” added in for good measure. Vacations didn’t exist. I spent my time off sitting around the house or in a local dive bar. I was working simply to pay my bills and buy my food.
I served in the Navy, where long hours are the norm. Working long hours carried over into my civilian life. I worked overtime while pursuing my Bachelor’s degree in Business Administration. My first civilian job was a newly created union master-craft position; responsible for all mechanical and electrical maintenance duties. That sounded great until the plant manager held a meeting for those hired into this experiment. “I own your union, so don’t bother trying to use them to make the position better” was the basic message. Given the atmosphere at the plant, and the fact that my grandfather had aged to the point he needed my help back in home town, I knew I wouldn’t be there long.
Within a year, I found a job at an electronics shop at a steel mill near my home town, south of Pittsburgh, PA. There was overtime, but the atmosphere wasn’t the same. There was a lot more shop work to be done, but I found myself with a significant amount of downtime once I made my way into the shift rotation. My grandfather was too stubborn to ask for help, or even take a break while he still had things to do, so I just stopped by to spend some time with him and talk about life. This brought us closer and having company allowed him to take a break without admitting it. After he passed away, I dove headfirst into work. And the bar. Chemicals and coal dust found their way into every part of my exposed skin. My sense of smell was all but dead from the gases I was constantly subjected to.
Hobbies and pastimes faded away. My home or a barstool became the only two places you could find me outside of work. When I say I went to the bar, I don’t mean to imply I went out with a group of friends and had a good time. I went out alone, and drank alone. Cue up the George Thorogood. It became my routine for several years.
After just over three years in the steel mill, I found my way to one of the electric companies in the area. Better pay, better benefits, a better schedule (so it seemed anyway) all made the choice to accept the job pretty easy. I spent 8 months in training before I was qualified and on the schedule. My job description basically boiled down to the Motel 6 motto, “We’ll leave the lights on for you”. After qualifying it became apparent how much overtime was actually associated with the job. I loved the paychecks, but not the hours, working in a large room with dirt lined air ducts and ventilation fan loud enough you couldn’t carry on a conversation, or the commute. At least the long hours at work kept me out of the bar. Most nights.
Management changed and I began to have more issues with the direction the company was moving. I dreaded going to work. I knew I had to leave that job was when I heard one of the managers say to a peer, “You can’t leave and go to your doctor’s appointment; this is your job.” As unhealthy as rotating shift work has been shown to be, that statement was the final nail in the coffin.
By the middle of 2018, I made several attempts at career changes within the same company. None went anywhere and they essentially closed the door for what would be possible in the foreseeable future at that company. I expanded my search for other opportunities across the nation and found a job posting in Alaska for exactly what I was doing at the time. Three months later I moved across the country to a state to which I had never been, where I knew no one, for a job for which I had not had an in-person interview. I have been in Alaska for 2 months as I write this and I can already see the endless possibilities to Die Living here. I left Pennsylvania with two Pelican cases, a backpack full of clothes, and the dog packed into my Chevy Tahoe. Just driving to Alaska was an adventure. I was on a relatively tight timeline due to the start date at my new company and the fact that I was essentially homeless. I still took the opportunity to do some sight-seeing on the drive up. Seeing the Canadian Rockies from the ground was the most surreal experience of my life up to that point. I couldn’t believe the mountains were real. The green trees, white snow, and blue skies made the rock of the mountains look like a painting rather than real life.
In the midst of the career path changes, I managed to make a real friend. We were both looking for someone to share our experiences with. There were multiple times when she and I didn’t see eye to eye; times we fought and pushed the other away for months. But every time we really needed someone; we were always there for one another. I don’t know what I would do without her in my life at this point.
For someone who spent years not doing much besides working, my comfort zone was a very small corner of what the world had to offer. The idea of doing new things, never mind the possibility of doing it alone, was terrifying. By making small changes in my daily routine, I started to chip away at the walls I had built.
Expanding my comfort zone wasn’t always my option. Some of the biggest steps in my growth came about from being let down. There were several instances of having plans with someone and that person blowing me off. At the time, the disrespect I felt really tested my resolve to keep trying to break out of my shell. The instance with the most profound impact was at a concert when my date never showed or even answered my attempts to make contact. I had to either go home and miss out on a concert for which I have already paid, or just roll with it and see how the night went. I gave one ticket away and proceeded into the show. It was one of the greatest times I had experienced in a long time.
I continued to look for new opportunities to expand my comfort zone. I headed to Las Vegas My friend was supposed to accompany me, but couldn’t make it, leaving me with a vacation for which I was not mentally prepared to be alone. I went anyway. I didn’t accomplish everything I wanted to and that was perfectly ok. It may not have been the trip I wanted or expected, but it was the trip I needed. Exploring the city, talking with people, and getting out to Death Valley (the highlight of my trip) all on my own forced me into my next phase of growth and truly into a Die Living mindset.
“Die Living” has become more than just a cool hashtag with people doing things that I wish I could do. Those two words have actually given me a life with stories that I can share. Since finding the SOFLETE community several years ago, I have come and gone a few times looking for something. The idea of opening up to strangers on the internet to help work through some of the barriers I encountered, either self-created or made by other means, pushed me away initially. As I grew more comfortable with myself (and more importantly my limitations), I was more willing to put myself out into the world to ask for advice or opinions.
Continuous improvement to the circumstances in my life is how “Die Living” has played a major role for me. No one is perfect, but you can improve the areas of your life where you feel weakest. Whether that means getting into the gym, eating healthier food, or even taking a trip to explore the world, there is always an opportunity to improve yourself. My journey of self-improvement has seen some relapses to my previous ways. These setbacks were not a bad thing. They allowed me to reevaluate the attempts I made to move forward.
Opportunities are everywhere if you keep your eyes open and looking out to the bigger world. Of course, there is the possibility of failure, but at that point what did you lose? You are no worse off than you are prior to your attempt. You can take the experience of failure and use it to move closer to your goal on your next attempt. Continuing to push forward, seizing the opportunities that lay before you is what it means to Die Living.
Matt Skotnicki is a work in progress, happily pursuing a life well lived in the frozen North.[training-ad]